Fear in the Workplace


Perhaps most surprising to us has been the degree to which fear appears to be a feature of modern work life. Whenever we talk with others about this work, such as on airplanes with strangers, we get a similar response — “Oh yeah, I can relate to wanting to speak up but biting my tongue.” It’s really a shame how much apparently untapped knowledge there is out there and how much pain and frustration results from this silence. That, too, has been somewhat surprising–that people are genuinely hurt and frustrated about their silence. This suggests that employees aren’t failing to provide ideas or input because they’ve “checked out” and just don’t care, but because of fear.

“Do I Dare Say Something?,” HBS Working Knowledge

What is happening here? Let’s examine some possibilities:

  1. Some people are afraid to speak up under any circumstances and the workplace has nothing to do with it.
  2. In some workplaces, speaking up is so obviously unsafe or a waste of time that everyone just keeps their yap shut.

Assuming neither of these conditions holds, people make a decision to speak or hold their tongue based on the specific features of the situation, including a calculation of how what they have to say is likely to affect their job security and/or mobility.

People who don’t care about job security or mobility are therefore able to be more fully engaged in their work, ask questions that need to be asked and say things that need to be said.

Hence the old saying that the effective leader must come to work everyday prepared to lose his or her job . . .

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